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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

In The Canyons

Experimenting in challenging conditions creates unique low-light shooting opportunities

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A subterranean adventure in Australia’s Blue Mountains presented unique challenges for Bill Hatcher and gave him the chance to flex some creative muscle as he worked out how to shoot and light in cramped quarters.
My objective in Tiger Snake Canyon was to capture all photos as handheld shots with no use of a tripod. To do this, I took advantage of the high ISO capability in my Nikon D300S and combined it with a NIKKOR 16-35mm ƒ/4 VR lens. I used the ISO dial to compensate for the low ambient light. Using a range from ISO 200 up to ISO 3200 allowed me four extra stops in the low light. I also used a Nikon SB-900 flash coupled with a medium Lastolite EzyBox softbox connected to the D300S by two TTL cords, which allowed me to place the light 12 feet from the camera. The softbox position was either handheld or set on the ground to the right or left side of the action. The flash was set to manual and preset at full power for an effective distance of 5 feet (I determined this setting earlier with my Minolta flash meter).

As I increased the ISO in darker parts of the canyon, I would decrease the power of the flash output. There was little natural light trickling down into the canyon, and as soon as a person tilted their head down, their face fell into impenetrable shadow. The position of the flash was critical. I purposely kept the flash at ground level so it would fill the shadows caused by the indirect overhead light. I used the softbox to match the soft canyon light and to give the flash better “wrap” around the subject with fewer distracting shadows from the helmet, ropes and splashing water. The shutter speed was determined by how fast or slow the action was happening, and what kind of action freezing or blur I was looking for.

For the photo of Kate Randall jumping into the pool, I set the flash on the ground to the right side of me out of the photo frame. The person in the foreground is illuminated by the overhead light and a touch of flash as the strobe illuminates the action at 1/60 sec. at ISO 1000 with the aperture set to ƒ/4.5. In the photo of Chris Knox, walking in the narrows with a rope slung over his shoulders, I placed the SB-900 on the ground with the head tilted up, and I panned the camera as I shot a burst of photos while he walked by. This photo was taken with the shutter set at 1/30 sec., to allow some motion blur. The ISO was 1000 and the aperture was ƒ/7.

On location, this system was fast and flexible, I was able to compress the softbox through the skinny bits, and the results were images I had never been able to capture before. Forced to come up with some new solutions for photographing in Australia’s dark green canyons has completely redefined the way I’ll shoot canyoning. More photos from Tiger Snake Canyon can be found on my website in the New Work section.

Bill Hatcher travels the world in search of adventure and good stories. Visit his website at www.billhatcher.com.


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